Optimal Learning / Focusing Time: Do more with less!

Published : 9:35 am  November 17, 2017 | No comments so far |  | 


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If we want to climb to the top of the corporate ladder it has now become essential that we have some sort of higher educational qualification. I remember a time when having an MBA was somewhat rare – but today almost everyone you speak to has one – making it no longer a differentiator but now a basic necessity. So today let’s discuss about one aspect of studying smarter and not harder!


Losing focus

Have you ever been seated in a class room for a two hour lecture where the lecturer seems to go on and on, the lecture finishes and you wonder what on earth had been said? Have you ever sat at your desk with your study books in front of you, trying your best to study and remember; sat at your desk for …wow! 4 hours … finally got up and then realized not much has been remembered? Been listening to your boss talk and talk and talk some more on a topic he has said is very important. He finishes and asks for questions and you ask yourself … what was that all about? Sound familiar?

Human Working Memory

If you think for a moment about a similar situation that you faced, in the recent past, you may well remember what had been said at the beginning and then at the end of the class, talk, lecture, study period, etc. Do you know why this is? The short answer is ‘recency’ and ‘primacy’.

When we receive information, this information first moves into our ‘working memory’, … this is much like the RAM (Random Access Memory) of the computer. While the computer loses what is in its RAM when it is switched off, or loses power – we humans start to lose stuff being held in our working memory almost from the time it was put in … unless … unless … it is ‘reinforced’, ‘rehearsed’ or ‘repeated’.


You remember more of the beginning of the session (Primacy)- because there was time to rehearse it in your mind before getting the next block of information into working memory. It came in first … therefore it had more time for itself, before being pushed around by the next block of information. It’s like the first child of a family. The first child always gets the most amount of attention isn’t it? When the second child arrives the total attention of the parents has now got to be divided between the two. 

Hence the 2nd never gets as much attention as the first did. Well that’s the most simple of answers for why we remember the start of the session. 


This is the information that came into working memory … last! Therefore nothing came after this to push it around or out! Therefore there is time for this too to be reinforced and repeated in our mind after the session is over. It’s like watching a movie before going to bed. Most times we would be thinking of it while going to sleep. Especially if it was a good movie!

We lose the rest

 The middle of the session or talk or lecture is unfortunately lost. So for optimal learning or absorption it is important that the ‘middle’ of the session be reduced as far as possible. If we sit at a table and try to study for 3 hours or 180 minutes at a stretch; we will remember the beginning 10 minutes or so (primacy), and the last 10 minutes or thereabouts (recency) the most; forgetting much of what we read in the middle section … but whoa … that middle section took the most time … a whopping 160 minutes of the 180 minutes. Did we waste all that?!! 

Smaller Sessions of Greater Frequency

So what is the solution? The short answer is smaller sessions. The optimal time for focused study or focused attention is said to be around 20 minutes. After this time has lapsed taking a small break of around 5 – 10 minutes will enable you to start another session enjoying a new period of peak attention. When the study period is 20 minutes … we will remember the first 10 minutes, i.e., ‘primacy’, and the last 10 minutes, i.e., ‘recency’ as we discussed earlier; but did you realize that as our study ‘chunk’ time was only 20 minutes … the entire time was at peak focus…. and we remember ‘all’ of what we studied.  This learning is coming from primarily two fronts, i.e., the ‘Pomodoro’ technique, a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo where frequent breaks are advocated; and the studies of Hermann Ebbinghaus, and also Albert Einstein’s distraction index (more about these later).

So in summary … if you want to make the most of your study time, and make the time you spend really productive … then break down your study or reading time into smaller ‘chunks’ of around 20 minutes. Take a small break of 5 – 10 minutes and then start another session of 20 minutes. It is simple, but really effective.  Happy Studying!



While the computer loses what is in its RAM when it is switched off, or loses power – we humans start to lose stuff being held in our working memory almost from the time it was put in … unless … unless … it is ‘reinforced’, ‘rehearsed’ or ‘repeated’.